Milestone birthdays tend to make us look back. This is the first of three birthday posts which do just that.
Tomorrow I will be 65 years old and become an OAP. How I reached this state is a mystery; ignoring the odd ache and a tendency to nod off mid-afternoon I feel no different from when I was twenty five.
I am not only (almost) an OAP, but also a migrant, one of the 8 million foreigners swamping the UK, according to the screaming headlines of the xenophobic gutter press. But, like Boris Johnson, Emma Watson, Bradley Wiggins and 3 million others, I might be foreign born – and therefore undoubtedly a migrant – but I am not, I think ‘foreign’.
My father was a civil engineer and in 1945 he left his home in South Wales for the Iranian desert on a three-year contract with AIOC, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later called British Petroleum, now BP-Amoco). There he built the roads, culverts and bridges required for pipelines to bring oil from the wellheads to the Abadan refinery on the northern tip of the Persian Gulf.
In May 1948, after signing on for a further three years, he went home on leave. In June he was introduced to his future wife – my mother – by a mutual friend. She was swept off her feet by a young man she described in 2000 as lean, fit and brown. She neglected to add ‘balding’ as at thirty my father had less hair than I had a fifty, but I should allow romance a little discretion. After several weeks courtship they became engaged and three weeks later they married.
Neither of my parents were impulsive people, indeed I doubt my mother took another rash and impulsive decision in her life, but if you only do something once, you might as well make it a biggie. Amid the inevitable ‘It’ll never last’ and ‘Marry in haste, repent at leisure’, they embarked on a marriage that would last until my father’s death fifty one years later.
In November my father returned to Iran, taking his new wife with him. Up-country life had been rough, but became much easier when the company bungalows were completed in Mian Kuh.
In 1950 they ceased to be ‘up-country’ and moved to Abadan where I was born on the 2nd of September 1950 in the AIOC nursing home.
In 1951 my father signed on again, but the storm clouds were gathering. Shortly after we all arrived home on inter-contract leave the Iranians nationalised their oil industry and told the British that their services were no longer required. I left my place of birth in April 1951 with no memories.
Like any migrant I always felt a desire to return and, in my case specifically, a need to find out where I came from. For many years it was unimaginably far away, then too expensive and then, in 1979 came the revolution and Britain was dubbed the ‘Little Satan’. When the reform minded Mohammad Khatami was elected president in 1997 a window of opportunity opened. I thought summer 2000, the year of my fiftieth birthday, would be a fitting time to return. I mentioned it to Lynne and she was up for it and then, in September 1999, my father died suddenly. I started making plans.
I contacted BP on the off chance. They were magnificent. They put me in touch with their office chief in Tehran and provided a day pass and the services of a charming young librarian at the BP-Amoco archive, conveniently situated at Warwick University only forty minutes from home. The librarian had done her homework and when I arrived she presented me with my father’s work record and copious maps and photographs of 1950s Abadan.
I had my own photographs of my parents distinctive-looking house and knew the ‘address’, SQ (Staff Quarters) 1495. With surprising ease we narrowed the search down to the Bawarda district and to one of two houses, but would it still be there?
Lynne and I arrived in Tehran on 24th of July 2000. We were met by a young man who would be our driver, guide and almost constant companion for the next two weeks. I shall call him N, his father had been of some importance under the Shah […] I expect, though do not know, that N has now joined his sister in California.
N knew we were not ordinary tourists as he was carrying a pass for us to enter the restricted, and distinctly un-touristy, Abadan area. The problem with Abadan was that it is almost on the Iraqi border, and the problem with that was not the first Gulf War, then ten years in the past, nor the forthcoming second Gulf War, but the Iran-Iraq conflict, which Iranians call the Imposed War. It raged throughout the 1980s but is largely forgotten in the west, conveniently so as the Americans were cheer leading, probably even arming, Saddam Hussein. A million Iranians died so they cannot forget so easily.
Ordinary tourists or not, N was taken aback when we suggested that rather than starting with a visit to the former Shah’s Palace, we would like to visit an office in north Tehran. AIOC once effectively ruled the south and had great influence in the capital but by 2000 BP-Amoco had only one small office in Tehran. The boss was away but we were warmly welcomed by his PA, Nadia.
She introduced us to Hossein Afshar who worked, she said, in an office elsewhere in the building. Mr Afshar (he was an impressive elderly man, and a degree of formality seems appropriate) had been accommodation manager in Abadan around the time my parents and I left. He knew the city well and volunteered to fly down to show us around; an offer of extraordinary generosity.
I gave Nadia several hundred thousand rials (which sounds impressive but was little more than loose change) to buy his plane ticket and we set off with N to be proper tourists.
We headed south via Hamadan, Kermanshah and Khorrambad, reaching Ahvaz on the 27th of July. The next day we set off on the last leg of our journey to Abadan.